... a magnificent new book that absorbs Du Bois’s critical analysis and carries it forward to our present historical moment ... Joseph writes with a comparable sense of tragic responsibility and urgency in equally perilous times ... digs deep into America's racial past, drawing in essential reconstructionist figures like Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as the disparate redemptionist likes of Andrew Johnson, Ben Tillman, and William Dunning. But it is primarily a book about recent history and current and ongoing struggles ... skillfully harnesses the past to illuminate the present, refuting fatuous claims that the latest wave of white supremacist reaction is some “not who we are” anomaly, and foregrounding an intersectional new abolitionist movement fighting to bring forth an anti-racist third founding ... Peniel Joseph has written a book with the power to engender the same consuming and transforming passion that the author’s own early exposure to Black history awakened in him.
Joseph’s consistent focus on racial inequities hidden in plain sight makes this book searingly relevant ... Joseph ably traces the through-lines that connect these three eras. This is especially pronounced in his account of the Jan. 6 insurrection ... Like a therapist, Joseph is trying to reveal our past to help us explain our present national situation. He is trying to remake the story that we have internalized about ourselves — how we have behaved, how we have atoned, what we can learn and what steps we should take next. If we instead rely on true, nuanced stories that will allow us to confront harm with deeper understanding, we will take more thoughtful action and produce more just outcomes ... Joseph tries to narrate our history as we live it, the better to understand the choices we make even as we make them.
It is hard not to be swept up by Joseph’s soaring rhetoric. But while The Third Reconstruction is full of insights, it is ultimately unpersuasive — if anything, the heights to which Joseph elevates Black Lives Matter also sets up the movement for a fall ... The problem is not with the movement, but with the idea that it has to fit into a grand historical pattern. The First and Second Reconstructions were in part the fruits of abolitionists and civil rights activists, but they also occurred at times when the country was politically and culturally ripe for change...But there is no modern equivalent of Thaddeus Stevens or Lyndon Johnson. And even if there were, for all the varied energies and moral strengths of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is no groundswell of public support for reform on the scale of those earlier moments ... Joseph writes in a smooth, compellingly readable style, though he often does so in a hyperbolic register...And he often refers to Black Lives Matter in the past tense, which perhaps unintentionally implies that the movement has run its course ... changing how we talk is not the same as claiming victory for the oppressed, or even a reorientation of the national consensus around them. In a decade, or five, we may in fact look back at the last 10 years as a period of racial change akin to the 1860s or the 1960s. But it is too early to write that history.